Lady of St Kilda

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By Irene Ritchie

The old schooner, ‘The Lady of St Kilda,’ rocks on the waves surrounded by mermaids playing didgeridoos. There are many fish, sea horses and starfish swimming around with a compass to guide them all. Who are these exotic creatures? Where did the ship come from? What adventures were had by those on board? Is this where the suburb of St Kilda got its name? Why is there graffiti on and around the sculpture?

‘The Lady of St Kilda’ sculpture on the Carlisle St Bridge was commissioned by the St Kilda Council in 1993 as a result of a competition and the mural was completed on 29 November, 1993. The artist who designed the ‘Gateway of St Kilda’ was Alex Nemirovsky. His father, Ruv Nemirovsky, a sculptor, helped him design and mould the metal sculptures in a factory and they were then brought to St Kilda. Architects Kirsten and Eric Hoak made the frames for the sculptures to fit on the bridge. There was a limited budget and Alex gratefully received the aid of his brother- in –law, Constantine Kozelsky, who helped weld and cut the metal in the workshop. He was also lucky to have sponsorship from Dulux Paints. A large number of volunteers helped him and the final construction on the railway bridge was completed by ten workmen taking two nights for each side of the bridge, which incidentally had to be done in the dead of night after the trains stopped running.

The nautical idea was suggested by the council who wanted a boat as the central theme. The mural, made of enamel on steel, was worked on for about six months. The most important thing for Alex was to make a work of art that was visually appealing, hence the bright colours and large, interesting shapes of the sea creatures. He imagined the ship and made the beautiful sails out of steel. He was intrigued by mermaids, gave them Botticelli faces and also wanted to give them an Australian feel so designed them playing didgeridoos.

St Kilda the suburb was named after the ship ‘The Lady of St Kilda.’ There are several theories about the ship’s name. It definitely originates from the island of St Kilda, a remote place in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland, which is no longer inhabited. The boat was built in Dartmouth, Devon, England and was initially used to carry fruit speedily from the Mediterranean to London. It was bought by Sir Thomas Acland, a British parliamentarian, in 1834 who had it converted to a yacht for cruising. He named it the ‘Lady of St Kilda’ to commemorate the first trip on the yacht with his wife, Lady Lydia Acland, early in their marriage, to the island of St Kilda in 1810. The ship had the figure head of a woman which most likely was Lydia. The island is a long way off the Scottish coast, about 64 kilometres north –west of Scotland, and its Gaelic name is Hirta or western land. It is doubtful if there was a saint Kilda. More likely the name is taken from Latin- Sanctus which is holy and from Norwegian –kilde which is a well or spring. It is possible the name comes from a large well of good quality water on this Outer Hebrides island where Norwegian was the lingua franca. Another speculation is that the name was related to a naughty woman, Lady Grange, who was confined on St Kilda for 15 years by her husband, a Jacobite sympathizer who believed she had overhead his many treasonable plottings. Yet another theory points to a set of monolithic stones on the island referred to as a lady. The most plausible theory seems to be connected to Lady Acland who was actually the first English woman to visit the island.

‘The Lady of St Kilda’ was captained by Lieutenant James Ross Lawrence until it was sold to Jonathan Pope of Plymouth in 1841 and shares were sold to Nicholas Were and James Duck. From 1841 it frequently visited Port Phillip, Australia, on trading missions. On July 6 1841, the schooner was handed over to the Were merchant family. It was usually moored offshore and soon the foreshore came to be called St Kilda. The name was then applied to the municipal district. It is not sure whether Governor Latrobe or J.B. Were bestowed the name to the area. Lawrence was the first to buy land in St Kilda and he gave the name Acland to one of the most renowned streets.

Captain G. Manton sailed ‘TheLady of St Kilda’ to Cantonand came back via the Philippines. It was then bought by a new owner and was wrecked in Tahiti sometime after 1843. There is a story that it was taken over by the French military that used it to stop smuggling arms and to gain control of the natives in Tahiti.

The sculpture on the Carlisle St Bridge can be seen as the ‘Gateway to St Kilda’ and according to Alex Nemirovsky, Carlisle St has benefitted enormously from the art work. An imaginative sea scene is a way of taking people out of their ordinary lives, helping them to see beauty in their environment and adding colour to the exciting and urbane café street life that has sprung up in Carlisle St.

The sculpture and its surroundings were defaced by graffiti and taken down during the Balaclava Train Station renovations. The Mayor of the City of Port Phillip asked for community feedback as to where the sculpture should be reinstalled and most people wanted it back on the railway bridge. The Council commissioned restoration work in July 2014 to rectify discolouration and rust which had accumulated for 22 years. They engaged a conservator, Paul Hunt, to work with Alex Nemirovsky to restore the work to its original state. Alex worked on repainting and Paul worked on metal stability and rust. They were returned on March 21, 2015, to their rightful place on the bridge. There is still further work to be done as graffiti covers the background. Alex would like to see a painted sea coloured background. The sculpture is vulnerable to more graffiti but with a new higher watt metal halide lamp, graffiti artists will be deterred.

I am very happy to see the sculpture return to the bridge and enjoy looking up at the shiny and newly painted sails and images whenever I walk past.

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